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"Climate Deadlock" & The Public's Learning Curve

by Scott Bittle

Friday, March 12th, 2010

For much of the past two weeks, there's been a major debate over how the world of science should deal with so-called climate deadlock. Political action on the issue seems to have stalled, a new poll shows the public is worrying less about global warming, and climate skeptics are more vocal in the wake of "climategate." Should scientists push back harder, or stick to the data?

A lot of this debate, we think, misses a key point about how the public grapples with complicated problems. Scientists, along with journalists and many other "expert" groups, have an unrealistic view of how the public thinks about problems, says Daniel Yankelovich, Public Agenda's founder and a pioneering social scientist.

The public has a "learning curve" on tough problems, moving from initial consciousness of a problem, to working through the possible solutions, and then finally, resolution about what to do. Establishing the facts is only one part of the challenge.

There are all kinds of other potential barriers to moving forward, such as wishful thinking or denial, a lack of urgency, or a lack of practical choices. Values, options, and how problems are framed are as important here as information. So is time, because people need time to weigh different alternatives.

That's very different from the classic "scientific" way of understanding problems, and it suggests a different approach, based on helping the public move through the various obstacles they face. For more on this, take a look at the presentations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference by Yankelovich and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis. The book is another good resource, along with updates from our Twitter feed, @TheEnergyBook.


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